Finding Time for Our Parks

Americans are visiting more parks but spending less time in them. What does this mean for the future of our wild spaces?

When I was at Yosemite’s spectacular Tunnel View a few years ago, I watched in disbelief as visitors poured out of vehicles and rushed to snap photos, bringing cameras or smart phones to their eyes before they’d even looked at the scene. Their first view of El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls was mediated through a lens. And those were the visitors who had time to stop. Many others simply rolled by slowly in their cars, taking photos out the windows. “Been there, shot that,” one visitor wore on his t-shirt. The idea seemed to be to collect as many quick photos as possible so as to post them on Facebook as proof that one had conquered yet another park.

“People aren’t stopping to look anymore,” Yosemite Communications Director Scott Gediman told me then. “They’re rush, rush, rush and I see that every day.”

A generation ago, the average Yosemite visitor spent 48 hours at the park, Gediman pointed out. Now the average visit lasts a mere 4.8 hours. “People aren’t taking long backpacking trips like they did before,” Gediman says. “Backcountry use is actually declining even though more people come here.”

Over at the Grand Canyon National Park, the average visit is even shorter. Most visitors spend just 17 minutes looking at the magical abyss. A friend described witnessing a family whose car pulled into one canyon view parking lot. “Stay in the car, I’ll get the shot,” the father hollered to mom and the kids.

Shelton Johnson, the veteran African American ranger and novelist, had the same observation about park visitors. “They’re harried, they’re rushed, they’re looking at their watches,” he laments. I tagged along with Johnson one day as he went about asking Yosemite visitors about how much time they spent at the park. We found that most of the American visitors were day-tripping and that fully a quarter of the park’s visitors were from overseas. The foreigners were the ones spending more time out in the American wilderness.

One Austrian told Johnson he’d be spending three weeks in the park. A man from London joked that he was glad Americans didn’t have more vacation time, since “I can come to this beautiful place and it’s not even that crowded because the Americans are all chained to their desks.”

As we celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, the organization created to administer our multiple treasures, it might be helpful to pause and ask whether in another hundred years, we will still have constituencies for our parks and wildlands.

Author Wallace Stegner once called our national parks “America’s best idea.” Not everyone agrees, but few would deny that the idea of preserving areas of great scenic, historic, cultural, or scientific value is a worthy concept. In 1864, during a time when Americans were slaughtering each other on grim battlefields, President Abraham Lincoln set aside the incomparable Yosemite Valley as a national legacy for generations to come, beginning a process that has been duplicated the world over since then.

Today, America’s hundreds of national parks, monuments, and recreation areas are as loved as ever. Total visitation topped 307 million last year, the highest ever in the National Park Service’s history. But the quality of that visitation is changing. Americans seem to be in more of a hurry than ever before, pressured by hectic work schedules and overloaded by other commitments and digital information. So while more visitors are coming to the parks, they are not staying nearly as long.

Meanwhile, a significant movement is chipping away at our legacy of national preservation: Conservative politicians in many western states want to turn nationally protected lands over to state and local authorities, and ultimately privatize them. The militant Bundy group’s takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon reflects this anti-public lands sentiment. Energy companies push to explore fossil fuel deposits on the very edge of some of our most spectacular parks.

Protecting our parks against these threats over the next century requires a public that fully experiences and appreciates their value. Already, our national parks have unfunded maintenance costs of nearly $12 billion, with $500 million needed for repairs in Yosemite alone, and another $338 million at the Grand Canyon. Where will support for the parks come from if Americans don’t have time to spend in them?

How can one learn to love our parks, to fully absorb the vast beauty and profound experiences they offer, with an eye constantly on the clock? And what does this drastic drop in the amount of time Americans are spending in our parks mean for the future of our wild spaces?

While some conservationists believe that protecting wild areas as national parks will lead to their being “loved to death,” I tend to side with Earth Island founder David Brower who said “You only save what you love and you only love what you know.” Much recent research shows he was right, as does my own experience.

It was extended childhood visits to Yosemite that made an environmentalist out of me. My father loved to hike, camp, and fish, and in June of 1958 when I was 11, he proposed that the two of us go backpacking in Yosemite. Our three-day hike began with a spectacular 2,000-foot climb past two grand waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada, both roaring at peak volume from early summer snowmelt. We camped that night at a place called Twin Bridges, about nine miles in. It was a lovely spot, with the Merced River churning by not far from our tent. Too tired for dinner, I went right to bed even though it was not yet dark, lulled to sleep by the music of the river. To this day, Yosemite remains my favorite place on Earth.

At the age of 13, I started to do some camping without my father, together with my friend John Ellsworth. By the end of our first year in high school, my father was convinced that we knew what we were doing, and agreed to drive us to Yosemite and let us off in the Valley to go backpacking on our own. We weren’t yet 15. John’s parents agreed to pick us up a few weeks later. The only stipulation was that we call home (collect) once a week, and send a postcard or two. We each had $20 to buy food and whatever else we might need during our trip. In those days, it was enough. During that trip we hitchhiked to Tioga Pass and climbed Mt. Dana, the second highest peak in Yosemite. When we reached the top, the entire planet, it seemed, spread below us. We felt like kings of the world. A great experience for a pair of 14 year olds.

How can one fully absorb the vast beauty our national parks offer with an eye constantly on the clock?

Each following summer during high school, I spent several weeks with John and other friends hiking Sierra trails and hitchhiking between trailheads. For several years, I recorded all my trips in a small brown book that I still have. Reading through it today, I realize again what a blessed childhood I had, full of the best kind of freedom, which my parents gave me instead of a lot of useless stuff.

John later became a ranger in Inyo National Forest, east of Yosemite. I too, had hoped to become a ranger, though life had other ideas for me. But I understand now that, early on, I was learning that happiness came from self-chosen activities, shared with others, and didn’t need to cost a lot. I realize I was earning the pride that came from self-reliance and the joy that came from experiences in the natural world.

Our trips to Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks taught us other things: We grew adept with topographical maps and at identifying the flora and fauna we saw on the trail. In the winter, I pored over guidebooks, learning the names of Sierra species. There were the animals: black bears; mule deer; big fuzzy marmots that sunned themselves on granite boulders; Belding’s ground squirrels standing motionless and alert beside their holes in the meadow grass; and the tiny pikas in the highest rocks, with their loud whistles.

It is sad to think that today children can recognize hundreds of corporate logos but fewer than a dozen local plants and animals.

A 2006 Cornell University study of 2,000 children found that direct and extended time in “wild nature” (hiking, camping, playing in the woods, etc.) was essential to both their attitudes about the environment and their daily environmental behaviors. “People who engaged in these kinds of activities before the age of 11 were more likely as adults to express pro-environment attitudes and to indicate that they were involved in pro-environment behaviors,” reported authors Nancy Wells and Kristi Lekies. By contrast, time spent in “domesticated nature (tending gardens, picking flowers, etc.) had much less impact on both attitudes and behaviors. The same was true for environmental education programs.

Another study of 45 dedicated conservationists found that youthful experiences in “relatively pristine environments” was the dominant influence in their lives. “The single most important influence on individuals that emerged from [a host of similar] studies was many hours spent outdoors in natural habitats during childhood or adolescence – alone or with others.”

In short, we need the wild spaces that our big parks provide and – equally important – we need to spend more time in them, for our sake, for our children’s sake, and for the sake of our parks.

photo of a man, at the top of a hill, wide flowery vistas beyondToday, America’s hundreds of national parks, monuments, and recreation areas are as loved as ever. Total visitation topped 307 million last year, the highest ever in the National Park Service’s history. But the quality of that visitation is changing. Photo by George Wuerthner

But the sad thing is that today’s children spend far less time, especially unstructured time, outdoors in the natural world. Writer Richard Louv calls this the increasing divide between the young and the natural world “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” which he says results in a wide range of behavioral problems. “The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature,” he writes in Last Child in the Woods. For children as well as Americans born during the past two to three decades, Louv says, ‘increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore.”

Indeed, while I spent hours every day in carefree games or unstructured nature activities, today’s children only engage in such play for about an hour a week. It’s not only because they spend hours in front of screens. It’s also because their after-school hours are usually taken up in scheduled sports, tutoring, and other extracurricular activities.

Most parents too, are similarly caught up in the working-world treadmill and have less time to take their children on vacation to visit our parks. It is often impossible to schedule a time when the whole family can go someplace together.

Sociologist Juliet Schor has documented how Americans now work longer hours than they did in the late 1960s. From Amazon techies to McDonald’s hamburger servers, the pressure to move quickly is more intense, the competition fiercer, and the deadlines shorter. Cardiologist Meyer Friedman documented the dangerous impact of “Type A” work lives and overscheduled personal lives decades ago; our hurried lifestyle produces feelings of time urgency, and as these feelings increase, they are coupled with free-floating hostility, the sense that other people are keeping you from doing things as fast as you could – lengthening the waiting lines, congesting the roads etc. This has only gotten worse.

Writer Annie Dillard observes that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that for most of us, our days are spent with the demands of work carrying over into our leisure time as well. It’s hard today for Americans to set aside their cell phones and other devices and spend time in nature. We are addicted to constant stimulus of the virtual kind. It often takes several days for city dwellers to slow down and leave their technologies and anxieties behind. Clearly time is of the essence here. Yet with vacation time so short, especially in the United States, our trips to parks rarely last a week at most.

One tourist told Yosemite’s Shelton Johnson that he remembers going on two- and three-week road and camping trips with his parents. Now he can only get away for a few days. “I don’t know how my dad had the time away from work,” he said. “If I took two weeks, I’d be afraid that if they could get along without me for that long, I wouldn’t have a job when I got back.” Another said he’d trade pay for more time if he could, but it wasn’t an option where he worked.

It should be. Many studies show that frequent breaks in our work schedules mean better health, less burnout, and increased productivity when we’re working. Many jobs require constant vigilance and attention, especially in popular fields like software development. Such “directed attention,” say University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan and other researchers, is valuable for short periods – it was hardwired into us by evolution, since if our ancestors weren’t alert enough they could be devoured by wild beasts. But constant focused-attention demands lead to high levels of stress and weaken our immune systems.

Kaplan suggests that getting away into more restful environments is among the most powerful methods of restoring ourselves from too much directed attention. Other research suggests that the most effective of these restorative experiences take place in natural settings. Outdoor exercise reduces the incidence of depression, and the psychological benefits increase when we are in areas with high levels of biodiversity like our national parks.

“We need idleness,” says Johnson, “for contemplation, for soul searching, for truly seeing what’s around us. It’s the beginning of art. It’s the beginning of romance. It’s the beginning of becoming human. We can’t lose that!”

But we are losing it.

photo of a tent on a beach, canoe and family nearbyphoto George WuerthnerMore than a quarter of American workers – most very low-paid – have no paid vacation
days at all.

Yet even now, the magic is still there, especially for children. A few years ago in Mt. Rainier National Park, I met a group of inner-city teenagers from Tacoma. They had been backpacking for several days and were as excited by the natural wonders around them as I was at their age. They told me of being afraid the first couple of days (of bears – and these were kids who came from a neighborhood where gang violence and shootings were commonplace) and finding it hard to leave their video games behind. But now, well into a 10-day trip on the Wonderland Trail, they talked of seeing a meteor shower, of building snowmen in August, of hearing owls at night, and of having deer wander through their camp. Two of them told me they envied the park ranger who was their guide and wanted a job like hers.

Clearly the situation isn’t hopeless: When they have time for parks and nature, children, and I’d venture to say adults too, come to care for them. When they don’t have those experiences, it’s a different story.

One important step toward increasing the time both children and adults spend in wild nature – and thereby the chance that they will continue to advocate for our national parks and wildlands – is extending Americans’ vacation time. We now have the shortest vacations in the industrial world and are among only a handful of countries – the others are all small and very poor – that do not require any paid vacation time for workers. The median American vacation of about a week – and even the average of two weeks – does not provide enough time for serious immersion in natural rhythms. And more than a quarter of American workers – most very low-paid – have no paid vacation days at all. By contrast, Europeans get a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation time and numerous other holidays.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a 2016 Presidential candidate, has proposed a two-week minimum paid vacation for American workers. Gael Tarleton, a Washington State Representative, entered a similar bill in her state legislature. Environmentalists would be wise to support such legislation, to assure more time in nature and greater support for conservation.

Not surprisingly, it was our greatest nineteenth-century environmentalist, John Muir, often called “the Father of the national parks,” who first proposed a paid vacation law – in 1876. “We work too much and rest too little,” Muir declared then, urging a law that would allow everyone, no matter their gender, race, or class, to have time to enjoy nature. “Compulsory education may be good,” Muir added pointedly, “but compulsory recreation may be better.”

As we celebrate the centennial of our National Park Service, we would do well to remember that we need time for nature and parks – to appreciate them, advocate for them, and protect them.

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